While Mila was technically a bodyguard, she was much better at playing offense. We’d used those skills in a variety of different ways, almost from the very beginning, and the team had come to a sort of equilibrium around her tendencies. That was fine when we needed someone to play the role of a blocker or a defender, so that someone else could do the real work while our targets were distracted. When it came right down to it, though, she had comparatively little practice at setting up a perimeter or establishing security protocols that were meant to stand the test of time.
We protected ourselves by staying light and mobile. An attacker couldn’t very well hit us if we weren’t in any place long enough for someone to set a plan into motion. The Texan, however, had established a base of operations in Dallas. His entire operation was so rooted in the area that, when he’d decided to relocate, it had required a fleet of eighteen wheelers, a boat, and a bunch of hired laborers to facilitate the transfer of goods and supplies.
He’d been reckless, yes, and he hadn’t taken into account how badly certain anonymous criminal forces might want his information, but I couldn’t imagine that he was stupid. That meant he must have taken some steps to protect himself, either with technology or with manpower. And that meant his kidnapper must have taken the time to suss out those details, in order to circumvent any measures the Texan might have had in place.
All of that was elementary. Just a progression of logical points connected to other logical points. The problem was that we didn’t have anyone on the team proper with the necessary skill-set to figure out what the Texan might have done to protect himself. CJ was the head of my grandmother’s personal security, though. Her position as a potential target who was almost terminally unwilling to travel was the closest analogue to the Texan. If anyone might be able to provide a glimpse at the protocols we needed to examine, it would be CJ.
Of course, I had no idea how to ask him those questions without accidentally giving the whole game away.
“How long have you, uh…been working with Virginia?” I asked CJ. I tried to be casual about it, but I could hear the effort in my voice was unmistakable.
Since I’d learned about his affair with my grandmother, CJ and I had made an active effort to avoid each other. At most, we exchanged five or six sentences before one of us found a reason to be somewhere else. Already, he was shifting in his chair, nervously dodging my eyes. That wouldn’t do.
I looked at Devlin and gestured for him to take over. He knew what we needed as well as anyone. Probably better, in fact. CJ wasn’t likely to know the details of the Texan’s specific electronic surveillance network, which was what I would need.
“CJ,” Devlin said. He sounded perfectly at ease, like he’d known the man for years instead of only days. “You know, we spend so much time dealing with Virginia and we never really got around to meeting each other. That’s weird, right?”
CJ shook his head.
“Really?” Devlin pressed. “Almost every time we’ve seen her, you’ve been there.”
“People don’t notice me,” CJ said. “It’s kind of the job.”
He nodded. “Miss Ford doesn’t get a lot of visitors anyway,” CJ said, “and the ones she does get don’t really like to talk to the help.”
“You’re more than the help, though,” Devlin said in a conspiratorial tone. “You’ve been on her security for how long now? A year? Two?”
“Five,” CJ said. “But I’ve only been in charge of the estate’s protection for three. I worked my way up to get there. That’s actually how we…”
He trailed off and I mentally filled in the rest of the sentence. That’s how we started seeing each other. I grimaced at the mental images that sentence summoned before pushing them down, as far as they would go. CJ, thankfully, didn’t notice.
“Well,” Devlin said, neatly filling in the dead space before it could become awkward, “that’s not how we like to do things.”
CJ smiled weakly at Devlin, even as his eyes flickered briefly in my direction. I pretended not to see anything.
Mila cleared her throat before Devlin could say anything else. She lifted one finger a millimeter from the table’s surface, pointing towards the bathroom. I didn’t have a chance to look up before Virginia took her seat again.
“Your mother,” Virginia said, practically lathering the word with disdain, “is already looking for us. Apparently, there’s some delightful brunch nook that a family friend recommended.”
I couldn’t help but smile. When Virginia and Elizabeth weren’t at each other’s throats, the antagonism between the two women was a source of constant entertainment. The problem was that – at least, when last I’d been around both of them at the same time – they were almost always at each other’s throats.
“When?” I asked.
“Now.” Virginia sighed. “Since I’m supposed to be retired, I obviously shouldn’t already have plans for the day. I should be able to drop everything and rush over to chitchat over omelets and mimosas.”
“Did you have any other plans?”
Virginia hesitated. “Technically, no,” she said finally. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t about to make some plans.”
I coughed to conceal a sudden giggle. “Well. Um. Are you going to go?”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” Virginia rolled her eyes, then grew very serious. “You need me to keep them busy, don’t you?”
I wouldn’t have phrased it like that, but she was functionally correct. She’d just made it seem as though as I didn’t want to spend time with my parents which was…a complicated situation, even when I wasn’t concerned for my continuing good health. I nodded, instead of trying to parse that convoluted train of thought into a sentence that she would understand.
“Then I guess I’m going.” Virginia pulled a hundred dollar bill out of her purse and laid it on the table, then waved away my preemptive protest. “I’ll keep my phone on me, in case you need anything. And I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done. I’m not pressuring you or anything like that, but don’t forget that I want to help, okay?”
I nodded again. So many people in my life were acting completely different, all of a sudden, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Virginia, being helpful and understanding without asserting her own will over everyone else’s? Devlin, seemingly perfectly okay with me risking my life? Mila being…herself?
Virginia stood up from the table, leaned over to kiss CJ on the cheek, and left the restaurant.
“She’s something, isn’t she?” Devlin asked.
“Yes,” CJ said, “she certainly is.”
Devlin lowered his voice and leaned in. Unconsciously, CJ mirrored the gesture. It was an old trick, but it never seemed to fail when Devlin attempted it. “How did…that…even get started?”
Silence fell. It didn’t seem that CJ was going to answer Devlin’s question, and I found myself wondering why he’d asked it in the first place. Details about my grandmother’s love life wasn’t going to help us figure out where the Texan was, how to save him, or how to ultimately nullify the threat presented by the Mouse.
“I’m not sure,” CJ said, just when I was sure he wasn’t going to speak again. “I’m really not. It just sort of…look, do you know what it’s like to meet someone like her? A woman who’s got the whole world at her fingertips, who can do whatever she wants…and she wants to talk to you?”
“I know,” Devlin said. “Trust me, I get it.”
“It was like that. I’d just taken over as head of the security detail and, one day, she invited me into the house. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been inside before, of course. Someone had to set up the cameras, oversee the interviews…you know what I mean.”
I didn’t, but I kept my mouth shut. Before I’d gone my own way, much of my life had been spent under the watchful eye of one security company or another. I’d never really thought about it. Even when I’d decided on an alternative career, my primary concern had been how to beat security, not the process by which security was established.
“So she invited you in?” Devlin asked. “Then what?”
CJ hesitated again, but even I could tell that he was warming to the subject. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. He was a man in love – with my grandmother, which still made me cringe internally – and he wasn’t able to tell anyone about it. Even if he quit the job and passed the mantle to someone else, CJ would never be able to publicly talk about his relationship without fear. The allure of discussing it with someone else must have been intoxicating.
“We talked,” CJ said. “That’s all. We just had a conversation. And the next day, she asked me to have another one. Then another one. Then…”
“Then one thing led to another,” Devlin finished for him. “And now here you are.”
CJ’s expression darkened. He glanced at the door my grandmother had left through and frowned. “And now, here I am.”
“How are you doing with that?” Devlin didn’t bother to explicitly detail what that meant. It was clear from the context, even to me.
“It’s difficult,” CJ admitted. “You, Sarah, and her husband are the only people who know about us. And your bodyguard, of course.”
Mila glanced up from her desert and grunted in acknowledgment. Devlin frowned, his expression a near-perfect match for the dissatisfaction on CJ’s face, but merely gestured for him to continue.
“We’ve been together for a long time,” CJ said, “but no one knows.”
“Do you want people to know?” Devlin asked.
CJ weighted the question in silence for a few moments. “I want her to want people to know,” he said finally.
Devlin just nodded. “And you’ve just been dealing with that? How?”
“It’s easier than you’d think,” CJ said. “We just don’t talk about it. Virginia doesn’t really travel, so it’s easy to keep her safe. I keep up with the home security and she doesn’t go out of her way to antagonize people.”
“Out of her way?”
CJ shrugged. “Virginia is a wealthy, unmarried woman. There are always going to people who think that she’s going to be their ticket to fame and she’s always going to have rivals.”
I couldn’t help but notice how Devlin was expertly guiding CJ into giving up information. I’d seen him perform that trick on a dozen different marks over the years and, in all that time, it had never grown less impressive. He wasn’t even asking questions, really. All Devlin did was prompt CJ whenever he fell silent, and CJ seemed endlessly willing to spill his guts to any attentive party.
“She knows people,” CJ said. “Powerful people. And she’s obviously powerful, too. Apparently, when you’ve been a titan of industry for as long as she has, the difference between your enemies and your friends gets real blurry.”
“And you think that, as long as she keeps to herself and doesn’t rock the boat, her…associates will be content to leave her alone?”
“More or less. But there’s still the crazies who want to make a name for themselves or think that she’s got money stashed in an empty room. There aren’t as many of those as you’d think.”
“I can see that,” Devlin said. He took a moment to pick his words carefully. “How long do you think you’ll be okay with the way things are? With…you know, everything.”
CJ heaved a sigh in response. “I can’t believe we’ve been…together…this long. It’s not that I’m not happy with her. And if this is the only way that we can keep what we have, I’m willing to be a little unhappy when she has to play a part in front of guests.”
“You could get another job,” Devlin suggested.
“If I wanted to have an easier, better paying job, she could easily arrange that. Hell, she’s certainly tried to do it before.”
That was so surprising that I spoke up without thinking. “What? She’s tried to get you to work for someone else?”
“Of course she has,” CJ said. “Just because it’s not hard protecting her doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t matter how much planning you have if someone surprises you while you’re at the grocery store or stepping out a cab. Especially now, if you know what I mean.”
“So why didn’t you?” I asked. “Take the offer, I mean.”
“Before you came into town or after?”
CJ held up two fingers. “At first, I thought that it was the best way to stay close to her. I’m still not sure if that’s true or not. Now, though? As long as she’s helping you with whatever trouble you’ve got – and she is going to help you, no matter what I or anyone else says about – then someone’s got to be here to make sure that someone’s helping her. I couldn’t leave that to anyone else.”
The yawning age gap between CJ and my grandmother hadn’t suddenly grown slimmer, but I found that I could respect the notes of commitment and fidelity in his voice. I still didn’t want to think about it in too much detail, of course, but the idea itself wasn’t quite as galling as it had been.
“She makes it impossible sometimes,” CJ continued. “I’m supposed to be the first one in a room, but she’ll do everything in her power to take the lead if I let her.”
My eyes caught Devlin’s and I saw the wheels spinning behind his eyes. I couldn’t imagine what he’d latched onto, so I rewound the conversation in my head and replayed it. I might not be as naturally talented at skulduggery and subterfuge, but I wasn’t a novice either.
We’d been talking about my grandmother, whose relationship with her lead security guard wasn’t particularly salient to our problems. Instead of using the conversation to lower CJ’s defenses, Devlin had focused on the two people themselves: their courtship, how long they’d been involved, and how it made CJ feel. What could any of those things have to do with the price of bread or the Texan’s location? How would knowing any of what we’d discovered in the last few minutes bring us closer to dealing with the threats arrayed against us?
I realized that I was thinking like a thief. Like Devlin, specifically. That was better than thinking like a prey animal, though not by much. Devlin wasn’t the type of person to kidnap someone, normally, and he certainly wouldn’t be a party to wholesale slaughter. Neither would Mila, for that matter. No matter what she did, I didn’t believe for an instant that she was capable of cold-blooded murder. Maybe in the past – I couldn’t say with any certainty what she might have done in her days with Aiden – but not anymore. She’d changed, just as we’d changed.
No. I needed to think like someone else, to look at it through their eyes. I needed to think like the Twins.
I contorted my thought processes as best as I could, cobbling together a framework from my impression of the Twins coupled with what Mila had been able to tell me about them. I hadn’t worked beside or against many established criminal cabals during my career, but I’d watched movies. Those weren’t typically resources I mined for inspiration, but it had worked for Devlin, hadn’t it? We’d gotten the basic idea for our pursuit of Max from his film selection. Why shouldn’t it work here, as well?
When I had constructed a flawed mental lens that vaguely resembled what I thought of the Twins, I tried examining the conversation through it. Almost immediately, a possibility leaped out at me. It was the sort of thing that I would have immediately dismissed out of hand, but the Twins…no, they wouldn’t shoot down any idea without considering its potential.
CJ was supposed to be my grandmother’s protector and, by all appearances, he took that job seriously. In a dangerous situation, he would probably be more likely to throw himself in harm’s way to protect her. But the relationship between the two of them had thrown the balance of power entirely out of…well, balance. By trying to move him into another job, Virginia was trying to protect CJ. How far, then, would she go to keep her lover away from harm’s way?
Would she…subvert her own security measures and put herself at risk?
I looked back at Devlin and immediately recognized the light of dawning understanding on his face.
“Max,” he said.
“Exactly,” I replied.